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  • Writer's pictureHelefonix Helen Meissner

Ageism - is there a ceiling for being taken seriously as an independent artist?

Updated: Apr 1, 2022

I am delighted to have been asked to contribute a piece on my experience of stepping into the spotlight as a solo artist having spent a decade promoting others, in the independent music scene. The main reason this piece has been requested is because of the slightly unusual ‘back story’. My name is Helen Meissner and I am now 55 and only started playing around with Garageband during lockdown, 18 months ago. Not exactly the expected/ usual age to start a musical journey. So you can imagine my thrill at receiving various plays for my releases on BBC Radio 3 (Elizabeth Alker), a couple on 6 Music (Cerys Matthews and Tom Robinson), interviews with Mike Naylor on BBC Three Counties and some BBC Introducing plays for a remix I did for Michael Donoghue, as well as some generous support from a number of independent radio shows.

My tracks were created under my own steam, and were produced, mixed and mastered by myself, having self taught – with a little help from my eldest Charlie Deakin Davies along the way. I still have massive gaps in my knowledge but I seem to have accepted that as inevitable and it doesn’t bother me now. Probably because, surprisingly, no one else seems to mind!

It’s fair to say that releasing my own music was not anything I’d ever aspired to. Never saw myself as creative person in fact. And was more than happy to help others get more traction with their independent releases. To be working and promoting my own material still feels odd. But I have to admit, it’s totally exhilarating.

Other than my initial doubts about whether what I was creating was technically good enough for, say, radio play, I initially felt that my age would go against me in some way. So I used an avatar rather than my photo on the socials. That’ll do nicely I thought. Hide behind that and then no one can judge me for being too old. I was a few weeks in, when someone on twitter who looked about my age, said that he also started off ‘anonymous’ but someone suggested to him that people prefer to communicate with someone they can see and relate to. So I bit the bullet and haven’t looked back. Thanks Fonz Tramontano, who is now a fellow Clouzine independent music award winner.

In order to put this feature together I thought I would see if my experience was echoed at all by others. And I was interested to hear from a (male) artist called Alien Alarms (44) who said “I started making music again during lockdown and loved it. I worried about whether people would think I was too old to be making dance music again, so I took on an alias and avoided having photos of me anywhere: even using a photo of my headphones when I was on BBC introducing. I finally replaced the logo on my bandcamp page with a photo from that show today and it was a huge relief. It feels good to be back”.

He also touched on something which I had not considered when I started. I was expecting my music to be online only and did not even consider that someone would want me to ‘share it’ from a stage with an audience. Except someone did. Three people actually, and one of them has had me back three times. Thanks Neil March who runs the Vanishing Point series for alternative electronic and experimental music in South London. My next live gig 7th April.

I did actually win an award or two as well, which was astonishing. Clouzine kindly crowned my first two EP’s in 2020 and 2021 and Tim Willett’s New Music Generator on Cambridge 105 was as astonished as I was when one of my tracks remained in their new music chart for 20 weeks and received the highest number of votes in their 9 year history. It was Tim who also asked me to ‘perform’ live. And from there, one of the award sponsors Sara Kathleen who runs the Hunter Club in Bury St Edmunds (gig booked for early June). Now this posed additional stress. I was not a ‘performer’ per se. I created in the computer but both said, I don’t care what you do, just come and do what you can. So in the manner of ‘what the hell’ that I had started this ride with, I showed up and ‘entertained’ for the required set length and felt the buzz the artists I had been helping first hand. Suddenly I ‘got it’!!

Interestingly, Alien Alarms also reported a similar journey “When lockdown ended I really wanted to play live, which made me worry again as it would mean ‘decloaking’. A couple of weeks ago I finally played at The Spirit of Gravity in Brighton and it was amazing. It felt so good to be playing live, a couple of people asked me if I wanted to do more shows and no one mentioned my age”.

When I had created my first tracks I sent them to Tim Willett (who I mentioned above) and Stacy Hart from Running on Empty. I can safely say that their reaction was pivotal in my desire to continue to create. Both were generous and enthusiastic. Having supported the artists I had been working with, Stacy kindly shared thoughts on ageism.

“Record companies have had to adapt to the digital age, and the great thing about it now is there is no age limit anymore, anyone coming out with a cracking record has the potential to be signed.”

“I don't think getting signed has the same status it used to. Unsigned artists are getting main stream radio play, playing at prestigious festivals, touring etc, all without the weight of a record company behind them. You will always find ageism in everything but as for the music industry we've come a hellava long way in the right direction.”

Regarding my own releases, each album and EP (so far) has been different to the last, and in fact, The Awakening my second album is out today!!

And it’s had a wonderful reaction from Nitin Sawhney, who received an Ivor Novello Lifetime Achievement award in 2017:

“Oh wow. Really beautiful. Feels like a ski trip from the mind to the heart and back, with lots of wondrous forests and dreamscapes along the way. Thank you. Gorgeous!”…for which I am truly grateful and understandably thrilled.

Encouragement from someone like Nitin, who I admire so much, has been icing on the cake. There’s the endless possibilities, the hope and the complete ‘unknown’ regarding how far your music might reach. That’s the exciting part really. Our tribe (however small) is out there. We just need to find it!

Creating and releasing music in my mid fifties has made me reconsider all my assumptions. If the music feels right/current, or simply something original and from the heart, I believe that people won’t care how old the creator is.

It made me wonder who else had ‘emerged’ at an older age. My husband Joe Rose only started singing professionally aged 60 after we met, with my encouragement for example, and he’s even had a play on Radio 2 from Elaine Paige!

I heard from super hard worker Sarah McQuaid “I don't think I really found my voice until I was well past the age of forty. I'm 55 now and it's only in the last few years that I've started to gain an understanding of what I want to be doing musically and to feel confident in my ability to do it.” She continues “It's really tiresome to see grants and awards for "emerging artists" that specify an age range of 18 to 25 or whatever. Who's to say an artist can't emerge at age 60?”

Funding is also something which Stacy Hart remarked on, “The only down side is the lack of funding of course, but suddenly, a world that had been closed to many was suddenly opened, whatever your age you could get your music online and heard by 1000's”

It’s an interesting comment about the funding. So I had a look into it. While there are still many opportunities to help younger artists (ie 18-30 or younger) with funding, some of the Help Musicians ) and PRS Foundation grants are open in terms of age and I urge everyone to explore these if you’ve not already.

I then wondered about ageism for established artists. Did they feel it? I found a successful career was still possible well into your seventies and eighties. International household names apart, Debs Earl got in touch to say“ Fairport Convention just completed a fantastic tour in their 55th year! Average age of 70. They're sounding better than ever!”

John Atkin observed that “Merry Hell have achieved far more as older musicians than they ever did as The Tansads in their youth.”

And then there’s the singers who have been gracing our stages for decades and don’t show any signs of stopping!

Miriam Erasmus told me “My last UK tour was 2019 at the age of 71. No tours since then, obviously, but I still practice and get asked to sing locally in Durban, South Africa.”

I note that Mike Silver (74), Peggy Seeger (86) and Tom Robinson (71) (to name three of many) are all out on tour and sounding as good as ever.

In fact, Kerry Harvey Piper got in touch to elaborate “I’m currently touring with Peggy Seeger who, at 86, is still going strong with her son Calum MacColl in his late 50s. As Tour Manager, I’m 62 and only our sound engineer is south of 30”

Interesting to hear too from artists who have been around for a few decades such as Mark and Carolyn from Red Shoes, who found more success later in life. “When Red Shoes started in 1983 I met Carolyn Evans and we slogged around for a few years, but just couldn't make that extra step despite being ‘tipped for success’ in the 1980s when we were in our twenties, a couple of small releases and a Mooncrest Records shelved album was our lot. But we were picked up (in our 50's) after our daughter Megan secretly posted some acoustic videos of us online. We came to the attention of Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg (because we had done covers of their tracks), we ended up being able to carry on music as a full time career. Three albums later we're still going strong and enjoying it more too”

“I’ve been making music on and off all my life - yes when I was younger there was interest and support but life choices, including marriage and children , slowed things down and made re-entry into the business quite a hard road. (If you’re away too long you are often easily forgotten). In my 65th year I am still performing and just about to record my 5th album of original material. I now look upon my music as art, hoping my music outweighs outdated sexist attitudes.” Linda Watkins

“As someone who’s been in bands for years, with a limited amount of success, I believe that I am currently turning out the best music that I’ve ever done at the grand old age of 55 and now starting to get some recognition with it. However, getting panic attacks around revealing my real age (other members of the band are much younger) in case it becomes a point of unwanted interest (good or bad). Music is an aural medium so surely it shouldn’t be an issue how young or old the musicians are?” Nicholas Foster

I agree Nicholas and I think there are definite benefits to being older, and it is more about the music than it ever was I feel. If what we are creating is current and we can find our ‘tribe’, they are usually pretty loyal and will stick with us.

“This is an interesting one. I speak as someone who has enjoyed a lot more success in my 50s than any other period. The fact that this includes being put on the BBC Introducing Stage at Latitude on my 54th birthday demonstrates a sea change from the rampant ageism that used to characterise the industry and media. “ Neil March

Emily Zuzik, 48, got in touch to say “What’s been most surprising of late is that my confidence in what I’m doing along with not really caring about all the stuff in between, has helped me get a laser focus and just reach out to people. I had always been afraid to reach out to bigger outlets because what if they said no…? And now, I just go for it and there’s no hesitation.. I think that also comes with years of experience and practice. There’s definitely a drop off in the how much you care what other people think of you that comes with age…”

Ruth Powell got in touch to say “We released our first album and started touring in my early 30’s as a trio and were busy gigging for 10 years, but always part time, with three people with mortgages, we could never quite get to full time. Or the fear stopped us. I’m almost 60 and we’ve just released our 8th album…Ken is 71.”

“I’m on a productive songwriting weekend in Tighnabruaich. There’s a spread of ages here. At very nearly 75, I’m the senior.” Thanks for getting in touch Rab Noakes.

“I started doing music as an immature girl, who thought that she already knows everything and could sing about it. Now I am a woman who knows what she wants and is writing and singing about what she experienced and what she can feel. My voice and my lyrics are much better than back then, because of what happened in-between. And I am so happy for what I achieved that I came that far. It doesn't matter anymore for me how old someone is or how old I am. My time is now”. Absolutely, thank you German artist Kay Burden from Platronic, for getting in touch.

I was pleased to hear that open mics are attracting an older demographic of performers too, thanks Sara Kathleen for this feeback : “I am running the songwriting competition for bury fringe this year and oversaw the applications, and there are at least 3 over 70s who are new to the scene and not really striving for anything other than a musical community. Open Mic nights are seeing a steadily older age of newcomer as well, and its always really positive and supportive and lovely.”

And London based promoter (but branching out across the UK!) Lorraine Solomons commented :

"The whole ageism in music - only young artists getting signed / young audiences … is completely outdated !"

Jeanette Lynes had this to add “ As a 59 year old singer and gig/festival promoter, I am well-known amongst the musicians in and around Colchester. My age has never really come up in conversation and people tend to be interested in the music or event. Journalists seem to be the only ones that ask women's age, in my experience, and I have been quoted in the press, when asked my age, as saying I'm less Atomic Kitten and more Atomic Mutton. “

Awesome reaction Jeanette!

Many people got in touch to tell me that they, like me, had started either during lockdown or in their forties or fifties. Thanks to Sharon Martin for this encouraging comment:

"I didn't start writing songs until after I had my kids and was bought a ukulele for my 40th birthday. I have found my children and life experiences have enriched my songwriting. I have also managed to achieve quite a lot since then including being BBC Introducing artist of the week, played by BBC 6 Music and performing at Glastonbury festival. It's a great feeling to know other people love your music regardless of age and I am so glad I started writing. Being a songwriter is such an important part of my identity now."

Carys Singer got in touch to say "Released my debut album at the age of 41 in 2018 an my second in 2020"

“First public gig at age 51... old enough?” Greg Hancock got in touch with thoughts that have been echoed by many in my research.

“Although I often thought about it, I avoided sharing my music until my fifties. I felt less self conscious, more self - knowing, and more confident that what I could offer was closer to what I really wanted to offer. The pleasure to discover that others appreciate what I do was, and is, as intense as ever. The worry that some might not appreciate it has largely disappeared.”

Corrie Shelley had this to add: “I'm a 50 year old singer songwriter who only restarted writing /recording /performing in 2016 after a 30 year break. I originally was worried about how my music would be received, was really shy, didn't like the mic etc, with the intention that it was something "just for me". A friend (now our bands guitarist) suggested that I send it to an online radio show, which I did, and my first airplay was on Hawaiian radio really gave me a boost to my confidence and I love performing now and bookings are coming through. Would I change anything if I had the chance? Probably not as I don't feel I'd have written the songs that I have without the life experience I have. Has age stopped me? definitely not, in fact it pushes me to do the things I really want to do.”

The confidence and expectations issues resonated with many.

“ In my twenties I played bass in an Indie band called Wicca. We played original music in iconic venues around London. It was exciting! Now in my forties with a family, the music called to me again… I’ve found new levels of self-confidence and self-reliance. “ Neil Stanton

“I have just released my album of beautiful traditional songs at 73 and I am told that my voice sounds pretty good! So I feel grateful that I am still able to follow my musical heart for singing has always been the core of me.”Kath Reade

I loved Linda Watkins comment and "In my 65th year I am still performing and just about to record my 5th album of original material. I now look upon my music as art - if I were painting pictures, age would not be an issue as my paintings would speak for me - as a woman and musician however, how I look is always a concern which I strive to contain, hoping my music outweighs outdated sexist attitudes."

This also resonated with something Sarah McQuaid mentioned "It's a weird thing about our culture that while it seems to be quite acceptable -- indeed pretty much expected -- that someone might not start writing novels until they reached middle age, in music -- or at least in popular/commercial music, not so much in jazz or classical music -- you're considered to be kind of past it once you get to age 30 or thereabouts."

Herts based artist Pete Guy says “Feather House has had many BBC 6 Music plays... I didn't get my first National Radio airplay until I was aged 47! I think that having had a bit more 'life experience' to put into your song writing is actually a positive thing. I also think that it's only over the last five years or so that I've begun to mature with my writing and I feel that I'm now producing the best songs I ever have...

St John Bickley is bucking the trend as an international DJ “I may not be an artist. But at the grand old age of 57 my calendar as a DJ in clubs and bars for the summer is full. Age doesn’t seem to have worked against me. In fact I think it helps as I’m seen as more reliable. Better skilled and much more flexibility in music type”

Someone who wholeheartedly believes in all this is Saskia Griffiths Moore who despite being well under the age limit herself set up Talent is Timeless facebook group. Initially starting as a competition about four years ago, it has developed into a thriving community for singer songwriters over 50. Well worth checking out.

"bring your light to Talent Is Timeless! It’s important we hear what every generation has to say, and so far everyone has been very receptive to that TisT artists. Quality has nothing to do with age."

Saskia shared a quote from one of their members and added some thoughts herself:

"I’ve been told all my life what you can’t do, it’s just that at my age now I don’t believe em." D.J.

"By songwriting and performing throughout your life you are directly making the music industry more age-inclusive and age-positive. I've seen the Talent Is Timeless members (50+) explode with creativity - start writing songs, performing, making records, writing press releases, pitching for co-writes etc. There is nothing stopping anyone from beginning or continuing their creative journey at any age but like anything else, it takes dedication, hard work, and a supportive community around you. We are the music industry - songwriters, producers, and most importantly, listeners. It follows us, not limits us." Saskia Griffiths -Moore

And some artists are also being signed.

Thanks Becky Lee Richards for this message “Hey! You can include in The Forest. Three of us are 41 and one 35. We got signed to a record label called Last Night From Glasgow during lockdown around the time of Alex Lee Richards 40th birthday!”

“A proud moment was when my electronic project Woves, with Josh Ricchio and Kolby Wade, were signed last year with RetroReverbRecords. We’ve been so wonderfully received that it’s been overwhelming in a lot of ways. It’s almost like a combination of everything I’ve been working towards my entire life. Now that I am nearly 50, I think I’m exactly where I am supposed to be and people seem to be right there with me.” Los Angeles based artist Emily Zuzik.

Electronic artist and Fresh on the net moderator Tobisonics had these thoughts to add to the mix : "The changing realities of the music scene present you with a choice as an older artist. You can either choose to be inspired or you can choose to be resentful. I choose to be inspired. The mainstream will always be obsessed with what is young and new, but that doesn't mean you can't carve out a place for your music as a niché market Artist."

“I feel the big money is always going to go to the younger people, but we were thrilled when Tom Robinson picked up on our stuff, (who wouldn’t be?), through the Fresh on the Net process, and hearing Doll Head and Space Dust on his 6Music show was way more than we ever anticipated when we started Dead Anyway. We’re just having blast, to be honest…. The business has changed so much with the internet, though, and yes, there are well documented drawbacks, but it does feel more inclusive for it. Way more inclusive than I was expecting” Kate Arnold from Dead Anyway

“ I didn’t write my first song until I was 43, which in a way I think is sad, because I now love making music so much, and I wish I’d always had that. But actually, if I’d started earlier, it would have been rubbish because I didn’t have enough sense of who I was or what I wanted to say. The biggest surprise has been the positive reaction. I thought people would be a bit eye-rolly about this weirdo in her 40s making music in a pigsty but plenty have responded positively. I do wish I’d realised a couple of decades earlier how limiting it is to worry about people judging you and how easy it is to stop caring, as long as you know you’re doing the right thing” Nell Davies.

I would like to conclude this piece, which I hope has been reassuring for anyone wondering about taking the step to return to music (or indeed start creating and sharing those creations in public later in life) with the words of Marina Florance who’s been played on 6 Music and beloved by her local Norwich BBC Introducing, and Manchester based Catherine Burgis (38) Test Card Girl who is causing a stir on 6 Music in particular with enthusiastic support from a number of their presenters :

“I find that I’m always the first to mention my age almost as a defence mechanism when I talk about my music but it’s rarely mentioned by anyone else - everyone’s thoughts and art are valid and interesting and will find an audience at whatever stage of life they find themselves able to make something “

And to close, here's Marina, who was approaching 60, having never sung in public, when she won a national songwriting competition : “I'm really pleased to say that music lovers just love good music no matter your age. Music and the arts are for all, if you find others creating boundaries for you cross them anyway”.

The Awakening is out today and Helefonix’s next live appearance is for Vanishing Point at AMP Studios, Old Kent Road next Thurs 7th April 2022.

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